A clinical forward performance by the Springboks will silence the partisan crowd and pave the way for a comfortable win over Japan, writes JON CARDINELLI in Tokyo.
Don’t panic. That’s one of the big takeaways from the unforgettable occassion involving the All Blacks, Ireland and a formidable horde of Irish fans at the Tokyo Stadium on Saturday night.
The All Blacks appeared anything but intimidated by the atmosphere at the ground during the early stages of the quarter-final. They absorbed the pressure and then capitalised on Ireland’s mistakes.
The Boks will be similarly challenged in the first round of the knockouts. The partisan home crowd proved itself a galvanising force when Japan hosted Scotland in Yokohama last Sunday. One would expect a repeat of that performance when David tries to bring down Goliath at the Tokyo Stadium later today.
For once, the Boks are embracing their role as the bullies of world rugby. Their set piece has been outstanding over the course of the tournament and their work at the collisions and breakdowns has been up there with that of the All Blacks.
They also don’t mind being labelled as defence-oriented or kick-obsessed. Those in the know, and indeed anyone who has noted that they were the leading tryscorers during the pool stage, will recognise their offensive defence as a creative threat.
If they maintain their composure and implement their plan, they should hammer Japan by more than 20 points. Many of the first-choice players have been preparing for this game since the third pool game against Italy two weeks ago. They have no reason to be fatigued and no reason to be complacent.
But Japan are tricksy. At a press conference on Friday, coach Jamie Joseph spoke as if he was preparing the local media and fans for the worst. There was a sparkle in his eye at the end of the conference, though, as well as a hint or two that the Brave Blossoms will spring a tactical surprise.
Japan will look to up the tempo and avoid as many set pieces as possible. They will take quick throw-ins and look to move that massive Bok pack around the park.
The Boks, however, have shown that they can maintain their physical effort for 80 minutes. Erasmus has picked six forwards on the bench to ensure that the onslaught continues for the duration of the game.
The Boks must convert dominance into points, though. They failed to do so in their opening game against the All Blacks. Those missed opportunities cost them dearly, as they went on to lose by 10 points.
Japan aren’t the All Blacks, but they will pose a threat if they are allowed multiple opportunities to attack the gainline. And if they manage to build a lead, that passionate crowd will become more of a factor late in the game.
Japan have enjoyed a fairy-tale run to date. They beat tier-one nations Ireland and Scotland en route to topping their pool.
Their success has captured the imagination of the country – and indeed the global sporting community, if recent press conferences are any indicator – and there are a lot people who don’t want this dream to end.
The Boks won’t take them lightly like the did in 2015, though. While it may be tempting to look ahead to a semi-final meeting with Wales or France, South Africa – more than any other nation – will know the price of presumption.
The Boks should back their strengths and their systems. They should expect the crowd to play its part and for Joseph’s Japan to bring a few tricks to the set-piece and breakdown party.
They should have the opportunity to make a statement early in the game and then control the contest thereafter. How they negotiate the challenge will reveal how close they are to realising their potential or indeed how much more they need to improve ahead of greater tests in the semi-finals and final.
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